Our 1964 Austin A35 Van Restoration
If you believe the popular mythology, 1964 was a year in which everybody in Britain was driving their Morris Mini Cooper S to Carnaby Street – an image that can quickly be dispelled by looking at any black-and-white picture of the provinces taken in the late Sixties.
There, parked on almost every street, you will find an Austin A35 van, be it family transport, transport for the local grocer, RAC patrol vehicle or even police car.
When Austin launched the A30 in late 1951 it represented a considerable technological breakthrough as Longbridge’s first unitary construction car. It was also the first vehicle to use the famed A-series engine, in 803cc form with a top speed of 62mph. That same year the A30 was upgraded into the A35, with 948cc power and a remote control gearchange.
By 1959 the A35 saloons were phased out in favour of the crisp new A40 “Farina” but the van remained in production and, apart from gaining flashing indicators in 1962, it remained virtually untouched by the new decade.
When the last A35 vans were made in 1968 they still sported the traditional winged “A” Austin bonnet mascot.
One reason for the van’s long life was the durability of its engineering and another was its versatility. An A35 van offered much the same payload as the larger Morris Minor van and was more robust and easier to service than a Mini light commercial.
A popular option was a rear bench seat; commercial vehicles of the Sixties did not attract Purchase Tax, so a family on a limited budget could afford a new, if slightly claustrophobic, estate car for two-thirds of the price of a Mini.
It also enjoyed a film pedigree; 40 years before the Wallace and Gromit caper The Curse of the Were Rabbit, an A35 van starred in the cult B-film horror The Deadly Bees.
The cabin’s dimensions meant the driver and his mate would need to be very close friends and equipment can best be described as challenging.
The door windows are counter-balanced to save the cost of fitting a rack & pinion winder, seat adjustment ranges from cramped to really cramped, while “air-conditioning” is via a flip-top roof vent.
The Austin may not have been luxurious but it certainly did not lack for excitement. After all, Raymond Brookes’s A30 won the 1956 Tulip Rally and, a few years later, a young £12-per-week works manager for Speedwell Performance Conversions named Graham Hill often took the wheel of their A35 demonstrator.
Driving the humble van can also be a thrilling experience – steering at 40mph in a strong crosswind is never less than entertaining and the lack of soundproofing gives the novice driver the impression that he/she is trapped in a motorised biscuit tin powered by a nest of irate hornets.
But these foibles are an essential part of the A35 experience, whether you associate it with Wallace and Gromit or 1976 F1 champion James Hunt, who used his prized Austin to transport his budgerigar collection.
Perhaps it is best remembered as a Sixties artefact that has nothing to do with the Summer of Love and everything to do with a lost world when delivery men still wore peaked caps and regarded taking their Austin A35 van home at the weekend as a prized perk of the job.